Just emerging from the other side of a busy patch – Messiah, Flyht, Creation and St. John Passion in ten days -, for me the Easter break starts round about now, always ignoring that there are patches of work here and there in the run up to Sunday itself. It is highly probable that an Easter Vigil or something similar might fall into my lap in the next few days, but, for now, it is a chance to draw my breath, take stock, and sharpen my composing pencil afresh.
Cantores Salicium performed extracts from my Missa Sancti Nicolai at their concert yesterday, and my arrangement of This Joyful Eastertide is getting a couple of runs on Sunday as well, and I’ll also be playing my Festive Voluntary in the evening. It is a decent run of performances, bringing the total this month to something like at least five, which is by no means a poor strike rate.
In preparation for my almost confirmed Big Project I have been doodling in my sketch book in quieter moments over the past few days, mainly playing with rhythmic patterns and small-scale harmonic progressions. Someone asked me recently where I began writing when I started a new piece of music, and the answer, as so often, is “it depends”. These days I like to cast around for material before I even start writing the piece itself, and I feel like a painter laying out their brushes and colour, choosing which ones are the most appropriate.
The problem with composing, as with so many creative acts, is that trying to think up an idea can be tricky, and the whole process becomes less likely to succeed the more pressure there is. I prefer to work my way out of a hole, to develop rhythmic patterns, for example, by starting off with a very simple rhythm and then – in modern compositional parlance – rotating it. In other words, if your basic pattern goes crotchet-minim-crotchet-crotchet (so, counting crotchets as 1, 1-2-1-1), you can then generate three other patterns by starting on the second, third and fourth notes, so 1-2-1-1 generates 2-1-1-1, 1-1-1-2 and 1-1-2-1 as it rotates. Unlike melodies, rhythms cannot be turned upside down, but they can be reversed, so those four forms we have derived from a single rhythm then generate more possibilities, although, in this case, they merely repeat the forms we have already. By halving and doubling the values (so 1/2-1-1/2-1/2 and 2-4-2-2) and, if necessary, multiplying by other factors such as a half or two thirds, we generate yet more possibilities, and it is from these that I then like to select freely. In other words, the perspiration allows opportunities for the inspiration to take flyht, sorry, flight. As I have just hinted, it is important to know when to cut loose from the process and to allow discretion to take over, else we might as well just plug the whole thing into a computer (which some composers do).
These rhythmic units can then be formed into larger sentences and even entire sections, overlaid upon each other, and each rhythmic value can be filled by a note or a rest, and subsequently added to or omitted for further development. They may also be used for harmonic progressions, small or large scale, as well as melodic design. The possibilities, as they say, are endless, but the inherent beauty of this kind of procedure is that a piece can sound constantly inventive and new and yet, underneath it all, entire rhythmic and harmonic designs can stem from a simple idea, in our case 1-2-1-1. It is a very different kind of composing from the “sit at the piano and see what comes out if you waft around the black notes” school, but it works for me and, importantly, still keeps the music as music rather than mere architecture, the head and heart in balance – ars est celare artem and all that.
Talking of which, the St. John Passion is a seriously fine piece of work. Bach sits on the top of the pile, as far as I am concerned, and by some considerable margin, and the SJP is pretty close to the top of the Bach pile, sharing space with the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. Smaller though it is, it is perfectly formed, and I have mentioned its palindromic structure, butterfly-like, before, and, as I play it I find more and more to astonish in Bach’s exquisite realisation of the story. By the time we reach the final soprano aria, the transcendental Zerfliesse, mein Herze, I always think of a summer evening after a tumultuous day, the moment when the sun is just about to dip over the horizon and disappear. It is a moment of calm and contemplation amidst the tumult, a deep intake of breath after the relentless drama of the previous hours, and then, and then…
The final choruses of the John and Matthew passions sum up tenderness, sadness and grief in a way almost untouched in other music – Mahler 9 and 10, perhaps, the Four Last Songs – and it is easy for the technician in me to point out how Bach achieves it musically. Falling phrases, leading notes falling rather than rising to their expected resolutions, cadences resolving onto accented dissonances, but, as alluded to earlier, this is about music and expression, not construction, and is surely the death of that yawny old Bach=mathematics chestnut.
Normally, when I get to Ruht wohl in the John Passion I think of what the words express and that intimate yearning so beautifully expressed in that large chorus which, of course, mirrors the one at the start. Yesterday, however, for the first time, rather than thinking of the protagonists in the story, I thought of Bach himself, but the man rather than the composer, a man who, I presume, carried grief with him for many years, especially that caused by the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720. Bach had gone away with his Duke, leaving his healthy wife behind, and returned to find her dead and buried in his absence, and he must have carried that shocking grief with him to his dying day, presumably quietly and in private. The John Passion was first performed in 1724, only four years after Maria Barbara died, and, although Bach had remarried, it is Maria Barbara’s death and the circumstances surrounding it which always spring to mind when I think about Bach the man rather than Bach the composer. I wonder how many times later in life he penned a phrase and found that it conjured up thoughts of Maria Barbara, and whether he shut those thoughts away or lingered awhile.
Gillean, the vicar at Mary Abbots, described the piece yesterday as “one of the high points of all art”, and I have to agree with him, for is achieves what very few works do. It is at once universal and deeply personal, tender and violent, dramatic and contemplative. I know what that music means to me, but I think that I shall always wonder about what it meant to Johann Sebastian and the thoughts he carried silently within him.